Philosophy of Kerbstones

There are so many things, lacking sufficient thinking. Yitzhak made me aware of something in a recent post where I wrote  MY apartment and THE office, indeed. I am simply stuck with the question. On the one hand it is actually MY office in terms: work, protestant ethics if you want, work as doing something that derives its meaning from some goal. And it is currently, i.e. in the current phase of my life very much an issue: end of this week I am going to Istanbul, on the way to Moscow. I decided to take the opportunity to stay two days in Istanbul just for holidays, to look around, to ‘do nothing’: we’ll see galleries, parks, the blue mosque, Bosporus …, what a place must this be? Constantinople, East meets West and West meets East – a large part of our history, the history of human kind in a nutshell. And surely part of personal history too, still ‘remembering times of which I do not have memory’: My father mentioning …, well, I do not know what exactly he mentioned; but I do remember there had been many issues around the different West meets East stories: The aggressive Russian-East; the miraculous Asian East; the unbelievable, un-spoken-off Vietnam East – and the West: heroic, anything ‘going wrong’ there more a matter of small things, or a matter of ‘The Soviets on the door-step’. – He definitely did have a firm opinion on everything, commented permanently and usually said nothing.

And although I am somewhat excited, also about going again to Moscow where I had been last year, I am wondering: ‘And? What is the point? Another gallery, another …’ And even having a ticket for the Bolshoi (Eugene Onegin) already here on the desk I am entirely torn:

Two souls, alas! dwell in my breast ….

My world, delving into the turbulence of 3,000 years (don’t we all know it?)

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth

arousing me, making me ‘stimulatingly suffocating’: my personal world of 3,000 years and functioning in a world of obligations, tasks, searches for …, not the little nothings but the little meaningless-nesses. Gosh, what a word: Things that are meaningless I mean. But are they actually meaningless?

For whatever reason I sent Treasa my travel notes (still waiting for Rozenberg to bring them to the public) – and after reading it she wrote in a mail to me

I’ve been enjoying reading your collection- they are interesting stories and perspectives and its hilarious in places

Actually I still remember some of the ‘stories’ I had been writing, impressions – meaningless little tales which gained special value for me as I lived through them by feeling very much part of a large flow: a flow of prejudice, stereotypes, large researches ‘linking me to what matters’, oppositions and political quarrels, …

Do not get me wrong, it is not an ambition to play a ‘real role’ in world history or even in one part of it. But isn’t meaning, personal meaning at the end something of being meaningless in the sense of being part of something? It is a little bit a paradox I guess: We have to be in some way inside to contribute and nevertheless we can only contribute by distinction.

In some way we may apply here what – trusting Pamuk – Hesse said in his ‘Life Story, Briefly Told’:

But after a while I noticed that in matters of the spirit, a life simply in the present, in the modern and most modern, is unbearable and meaningless, that the life of the spirit is made possible only by constant reference to what is past, to history, to the ancient and primeval.

And some sense of this came to my mind when reading in Pamuk’s My Name is Red (I have The Everyman’s Library Edition) the Chronology. Stating dates (years) he has a column ‘author’s life’, ‘literary context’ and ‘historical events’. Look just at the short period from 1976 to 1980 – and even if it brings only few things together it makes me thinking so much about this time – which had been also my time and your time and the time of so many of today’s contemporaries. And what I find of special interest: you can read horizontally and vertically, from the right to the left and the left to the right. And you arrive at so many different results and you arrive at so many same results.

Yes, we are strangers – and to be stranger we have to be ‘there’: in the different place and time.

So, I can finally begin with thinking about the need, or at least usefulness of a philosophy of kerbstones as promised in a recent post.

My first thought – not so much about the philosophical dimension but very much the down to earth dimension – had been when I moved to Ireland. My biographer may one day figure out which year this was. Thinking in my usual broad time lines it had been in the years BCT, before the birth of the Celtic Tiger. And walking around: Patrick’s Street, Mc Curtin Street, South Mall, Barrack Street, around the Shandon area and also the UCC area, I frequently thought that the kerbstones had been rather high, higher than what I had been used to from my previous life. One gets used to things. After a while I didn’t think about it anymore – and if I actually did I may have said something like: ‘In retrospective it had probably not been the height of the kerbstone at all. More that fact of going different ways – and whenever one taks a new walk in life one is confronted with new hurdles.’

Years later it had been a socio-historical perspective on kerbstones, living for a short time in Florence. A most beautiful place; full of history and full of history that employed me while working on the book Social Professional Activities and the State: Matters of the Renaissance – rebirth and at the same time birth of something entirely new as it finds its expression in the height of the two high raisers: Cathedral and Palace being of the same height – power of church and power of the ‘new state’ finding their specific balance (and of course, leveling the doorsteps for the Medici to become ‘bankers of the pope’ (if you want a kind of harbinger of today’s European Central Bank).

To make space for the palace, a huge area needed to be levelled: houses of the poor being destroyed, making place for the rich and powerful and being accompanied by …, un-levelling. Building streets at the time, demarcating traffic meant, well you know it already: kerbstones. I do not pretend to know anything about the technicalities, architectural reasons …. It may be that it had been due to the horse-carts used at the time, the climate and the whish to protect the pedestrians from the rain water. It may also be that it had been a matter of behaviour: people requiring firm measures to stay in the respective realm: strict behavioural and social borders in form of physical controls because the psychological self-control had not been established (Norbert Elias wrote about all these matters of shifts of control).

Be all this as it is, I recall from the travel notes I mentioned earlier:

It is already the 28th, very early the morning when I open the door to my apartment at the Via Ardiglione in Florence. Walking there from the train station gave me the feeling of walking through the extinct city, gave me another time the feeling of estrangement. Even at this time I got the feeling of entering a place being full of life. It reminded me at the times when I lived and worked in this country many, many years go. All was a little bit unreal – streets having more the character of alley; the old plaster rather than new-stylish tarmacadam; passing Cappella dei Medici, the Duomo, crossing the Piazza della Repubblica, getting at the other side of the Arno by walking across the Ponte Vecchio, following the Borgo S. Jacopo, continuing the Via S. Spirito, turning into the Via Maffia. Only a few minutes left now to get home. The old buildings, then after walking altogether for about twenty minutes, I open the door to my apartment. I had been afraid the loud jar of the door in the hinges might wake up the other people living in the building. Everything in the house remained quite. It was nice to enter the warm rooms, to see that there had been life here as well – the fruit on the kitchen table, the news paper in the living room …, and it was nice to lay down, to fall asleep.

And that happened in that beautiful Florence – where I thought for many times about another side of this: But how do you actually move around with a pram, if you are bound to a wheelchair, if you have problems with the sight … History excluded also in this way: ‘accepting’ that groups of people: disabled, mothers are others – are not part of respected and accepted daily life (It may be worth a side remark, something I learned when my daughter visited my while I lived in Florence. We visited one of the Medici palaces and the guide showed on another building, another palace nearby, saying: this had been the place where one of the brothers lived, disabled, never been allowed to leave, never been allowed to be seen in public: the other that ‘didn’t exist’ or at least had to be made ‘non-existing’.)

We can say that kerbstones had been both: reflecting exclusion and also means of exclusion – as said in a previous post: we can only perceive what we know already, or at least: we always perceive on the basis of existing knowledge (not in the Platonist way though). This perception is also the matter of ‘walking’: we can only make those steps for which the streets, roads and and the road marks exists. The kerbstone not much more than the marking of the little poodle: a means of defining property and keeping borders straight. Too high for some, of course.

Well, coming back to earth, the third time now – and now actually approaching the kerbstones still from a socio-historical perspective but also including very much a more philosophical perspective. Walking around – though I don’t walk much: I perceive them as being high. And I also perceive the height as lacking regularity. Little bit extending the issue and including some stairs: for instance the one in the  little park I cross when walking to the shopping centre, there seems to be …, no: there is irregularity of the height. It is here on campus and also in town. And the fight or shall we say the competition between the towers of trade centres, office buildings and mosques is still going on. It can be seen as well as matter of urban renewal schemes. As much as they may be celebrated as measures of getting people out of slums, ghettoes and squatters it is very much also about erecting new borders. The urban renewal schemes present in one perspective a kind of internalisation of kerbstones. They require the acknowledgement of a new identity, or the other way round: they make it impossible to continue certain traditions. Also economic traditions. Or can you imagine where to store the cart and the various products you may sell in your informal economic activities when you live in a modern building, lets say in an apartment on the fourth flour? But going even further back: Can you imagine how to pay for the apartment not having a ‘proper job’?

All this is not just about the visible borders and obvious economic factors. Instead …., well, part of the work I am doing on precarity and development of modes or production is to look at the wider picture: how does the change of the economy link into what Paul Boccara calls modèle anthroponomique – something he wants to engage me in since some years now (and he surely succeeded though we have too few occasions to really work on it together).

Part of such wider perspective is to explore issues like attachment – detachment, enchantment – disenchantment, personalisation – depersonalisation, individuation – socialisation, objectification – subjectification (also as matter of development of agents and agency), engagement – disengagement. Dichotomies and as long as keep on to think in terms of these issues as dichotomies they are surely misleading.

All this gives the look at kerbstones a special, distinct note: the modern kerbstones …, regular …, and possibly not existing as visible demarcation. Walk along Patrick Street in Cork today. Go to Dublin, the GPO (General Post Office) and the street at one stage the location of barricades, today accident-prone as the distinction of street and pedestrian way is hardly recognisable.

Much of the fear, of scepticism towards modernisation and modernity may then come from there: we always had to deal with norms and borders that had not been (completely) our own norms; but now the challenge is to accept norms in a different way, accepting them by suggesting they would be ‘inherent’, chosen by us and based on free and rational decision.

Alain Renaut speaks of humanism as

basically the valorization of humanity in its capacity for autonomy. What I mean by this … is that what constitutes modernity is the fact that man thinks of himself as the source of his acts and representations, as their foundation (read: subject) or author. … The humanistic man is one who does not receive his norms and laws either from the nature of things (as per Aristotle) or from God, but who establishes them himself, on the basis of his own reason and will. Thus modern natural right is a subjective right, posited and defined by human reason (as per juridical rationalism) or by human will (as per juridical voluntarism).

(Renaut, Alain, 1997: The Era of the Individual. A Contribution to  a History of Subjectivity. Translated by M.B. DeBevoise and Franklin Philip. With a Foreword by Alexander Nehaas; Princeton/New Jersey: Princeton University Press [Original: L’ère de l’Individu: Contribution à Une Histoire de La Subjectivité; Paris: Gallimard, 1989]: 17 f.)

And he still overlooks (and makes us overlooking) that all this is – not completely, but still to a remarkable extent – a matter of creating illusions. The fear then of loosing power, loosing the power not as matter of controlling others but of controlling situations, controlling things we do, controlling our own life – loosing capabilities by only gaining the ability to function. The fear is about questioning of Milton’s Satan who says

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven.

(Paradise Lost, Book I)

Being a small cog in a big wheel ….


On occasion of an earlier visit here in Ankara I wrote about the helicopters, frequently patrolling around:

a visible sign: the helicopters, nearly always present, flying their circles over the campus.

And they are surely still around – too often and probably by many not even recognised anymore. …. One of these days I am sitting in my office – hearing the noise I heard so often without fully getting used to. A little later I leave, walk to the library – hear the noise and see something different: the hovering of lawnmowers – a metaphor perhaps: the internalised sense of law and order – borders. Orderly cut grass, hedges and invisible, but permanently visible kerbstones – and also the undeniable advantage of drivers accepting the meaning of zebra crossings, accepting with this the right of people to cross the street, also people who aren’t near-olympioniques

Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!

(Verdi: Hebrew Slave Chorus)


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